“The only worthwhile striving is after the highest ideals: If you aim for an easy target, your standard will inevitably decline, and no progress is ever made, except through real effort and real suffering.” - Servant of God Fra' Andrew Bertie                                                                                                                                                 "Work as if everything depends on you, pray as if everything depends on God" - Saint Ignatius of Loyola


We are extremely grateful to Dr Michael Cullinan for celebrating Mass for us at the January Recollection, the feast of S John Chrysostom, and for his most inspiring talks, and for allowing us to share the texts with us. Please pray for him too.  The afternoon talk will follow in a separate post.

We are grateful too to the Father of the London Oratory for allowing use of the Little Oratory and of St Wilfrid's Hall for lunch.


1. Looking Forward

Last time I talked about knights on campaign, and two years ago on knights (or knights to be) at prayer. This is going to be more like a Council of War. A long speech on strategy and tactics delivered by a specialist from the staff. A briefing with a lot in it, possibly too much for you. Designed to cover the ground and brief all the different specialists  in the different aspects of military organization.

So if some of it doesn’t interest you, I don’t mind if you just let it flow over you, so long as you take something to chew over that does go with where you’re at now. So here goes.

This is a turning point for traditionalists. We really have reached a turning point.

Now, don’t any of you get nervous. I’m not making any large claims, or getting involved in weighty issues of liturgy and Church politics.

I’m only talking about today. This Saturday. And today is a turning point for traditionalists. Because today it’s time to turn away from the past and look towards the future. Once again, don’t get nervous. I’m not getting into deep waters. I’m only talking about today.

Because when I agreed to speak to you today, and had, as ever, no obvious topic to talk to you about, I noticed something about today. Today is the eve of Septuagesima. It’s the last day when we’re in the season after Epiphany, looking back to Christmas. Even though it’s still less than forty days – it’s not yet Candlemas, so the cribs will still be up in Rome.

But tomorrow is Septuagesima when the long countdown to Easter begins. Easter is early this year, but it still seems a long way away. And even if you don’t notice Septuagesima, it’s only two and a half weeks to Lent.

The last time I spoke to you here it was in deepest Lent. And you do have to say certain things in Lent. But I’d hate to become a specialist in Lenten talks. In sin, and penance, and the cross.

So today I thought I’d say something about the background to Lent and also take a last look back at Christmas. Because looking at Christmas will help us to get through Lent.

So the rest of this talk is a look forward to Lent and Easter. Via Septuagesima. The preparation for Lent.

They got rid of Septuagesima because, they said, Lent is a preparation for Easter and you don’t need a preparation for a preparation. Very clever and quick. But just a bit glib, don’t you think?

Of course it all depends what you do in Lent. For most of us now, apart from Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Lent is very much what you make of it. The age of fasting and abstinence is over. So you have to make your own plans.

But other Christians do things differently. Our Orthodox cousins are meant to do a lot of fasting and abstinence in Lent. To go Vegan, in fact. And they have kept a preparation for Lent. A gradual warm-up. First a week without abstinence, even on Friday, then farewell to meat, then the next week farewell to cheese and milk too.

It does seem rather a shock to jump straight into Ash Wednesday without any warning. Without any warming up. But there’s a much more important reason why I think we need a period of run-up to Lent. If we’re going to take Lent seriously, and Easter seriously, we need an explanation of why we have Lent, and, indeed, why we have Easter.

And this the traditional liturgy did very well. But not where you’d easily find it. Not in the texts of the Mass that you’d hear on Sundays.

Perhaps some of you were a bit alarmed when I talked about turning points and turning away from the past to look to the future. You needn’t worry. Because we’re now going to look back very far indeed. To find an explanation for Lent and Easter.

This evening, at Vespers in the traditional Rite, the antiphon at the Magnificat is: ‘The Lord said to Adam: Of the wood that is in the middle of paradise you shall not eat: in that hour you eat it you shall die the death.’

That should be far back enough for the most ardent traditionalist. All the way back to the Fall. But the liturgy goes even farther back. The antiphon at Saturday Vespers announces the book that will be read at Matins. And at Matins on Septuagesima Sunday the Book of Genesis is opened. At the first verse. Wisely, because Creation comes before the Fall, and the goodness of creation must come before its marring, in our explanation for Lent. And for Easter.

They say that if you’re not sure what to do you should play to your strengths. I’m not an experienced giver of Recollections, I’m a moral theologian. And I have studied St Paul. More of him later, but first our journey back to the start. A view of the earliest events in Genesis. From the perspective of a moral theologian.

Our medieval ancestors probably knew more about Genesis than Catholics do today. Even if they couldn’t read, they could look. And see the Bible in the stained glass of the church.

There’s still some of that stained glass left. Not very much, thanks to the two Cromwells, but there’s still some. Fairford Parish Church has a good set. And even more so does York Minster.

The East Window of York Minster was completed in 1408. It has the seven days of creation. And then

The Temptation and Fall.
The Expulsion from Paradise.
Cain murders Abel.
Noah and the ark.
The drunkenness of Noah.
The Tower of Babel.
The meeting of Melchizedek and Abraham.
Jacob obtains Isaac’s blessing.
The vision of Jacob’s ladder.
Joseph and his brethren.
Jacob blesses his sons.
Moses found by Pharaoh’s daughter.
Moses and the burning bush.
Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh.
The Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea.
Moses receiving the tablets of stone.
Moses and the brazen serpent.
Samson and the house at Gaza.
David and Goliath.
and The death of Absalom.

Quite a course in the Old Testament. A kaleidoscope of images. Enough for several sermons or talks.

But I’ve only got this one. Where we’re looking back through history to see why we need Lent. And why we need Easter. We’re looking back at the history of human sin. And human salvation. So as to understand our own sin. And our own need for salvation.

The old liturgy had one way of looking back. Next Saturday the antiphon at Vespers is about Noah and the Ark. Then, on the Saturday before Lent, it is about the call of Abraham. Later, on the Sundays of Lent there are the stories of Esau and Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, before the reading of Jeremiah for Passiontide.

I just want to look at three images. Three windows. Three personages. Adam, Abraham, and Moses. Three turning points. Because St Paul sees them as turning points. In the history of sin.

Adam sinned and so he died. And so do we his descendants. In the West we see his sin as somehow inherited by everyone. And our death as a consequence of that sin.

The Greeks see it the other way round. Adam died because he sinned. We die because we are his descendants. And we sin because we die. Because our lives are so finite, so we grab out at what we want. Whether we should have it or not.

It isn’t hard to prove the reality of human sinfulness. I remember when I was at Cambridge the maths don was an atheist. The College butler had a young son, a late child, one of those blond-haired, blue-eyed kids that gets up to every mischief he can. I’ll never forget the don’s comment about that child, ‘Best argument for original sin I’ve ever seen.’

You only have to watch the TV or read the paper to see that our world may have much in it that’s good, true, and beautiful but there’s also much that’s ugly, false, and evil. And that whatever we believe the good, true, and beautiful to be, we don’t always do it.

The old theologians would have talked about fallen nature. And the time from Adam as the age of nature.  Cain and Abel. Noah’s flood. And Babel. Violence, universal wickedness, and pride.

St Paul thought that the next period began with Moses. But Abram has to come first. Or rather Abraham as he becomes when God makes a covenant with him. A second covenant. The previous  one came after Noah’s flood.

Abraham comes first for two reasons. First, he was chosen as our father. The father of many nations. The beginning of a chosen people. With a particular religion.

And secondly because Abraham believed. He had faith. And so he is our father in faith. Made righteous by faith. By faith and obedience to God’s call. Rather than by any work or observance.

But sin continued to reign. Even over Abraham’s descendants. And a motley bunch, some of them were.

So we pass to the next image. The next milestone. The next window. Moses.

Moses the greatest prophet. The leader of God’s people from slavery to freedom, through the desert to the promised land. Moses the giver of the Law and the Ten Commandments.

From the age of nature to the age of law. The next step.

Catholics rather like law and commandments. And Anglo-Saxons often like them even more. So you might think that with the giving of the Law comes the ultimate cure for sin. The ultimate basis of the moral life.

That’s quite a popular view. And it has quite a pedigree behind it.

I hope you aren’t dazed by images at this point. By stained glass and pictures from the Bible. I hope you have time for one more trip. This time to Rome. To the Sistine Chapel. Which has on one side the scenes from the life of Moses. The Old Law. And on the other an equal number of scenes from the life of Christ. The New Law of the Church. A magisterial portrayal of morality from the glory of the Counter-Reformation.

But it won’t do. It won’t do as a description of Christian morality. And it won’t do as an explanation for Lent. Because the new age of the gospel isn’t another age of law. It’s an age of grace. And it’s what we’ll be looking at later. To complete our preparation for Lent.

What we’re looking at now is sin in history. So as to see sin more clearly in ourselves. Morbid anatomy and pathology. Not to dwell on it itself. But to diagnose deeply enough to find the right cure.

All this about sin in history might sound abstract and irrelevant. But there’s an important principle in biology. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.  Sometimes our own physical development recapitulates the history of our species. And sometimes our own moral development recapitulates the history of moral development.

You can see it in our early years. A sort of age of nature. Before law. But not without the sin of Adam.

Then the period of Abraham through the realisation of call and guidance. And faith and religion.

Then the period of Moses. Law and commandments. Rules and discipline.

I think each of our lives has its echoes of the history of salvation. Little flashes of those stained glass windows. Little Adams. Little Cains and Babels. Little Noahs and Abrahams too. And little Jacobs and Davids.

I think most of us go through our age of nature and our age of law. The problem is that some of us get stuck there. When we need to enter the age of grace.

We’re not a very united Church at the moment. And it’s not an easy time to be a moral theologian. There are increasingly bitter differences over how to face the huge changes in sexual behaviour of the last fifty years.

But I’ve noticed one thing. It isn’t only the side against change that keeps referring to laws. The other side often say critical things about ‘rules’. And ‘rules’ is a word I don’t like. First it reminds me of school rules. And second it seems too superficial a word to use for natural or divine law.

Sometimes it seems that both sides are still in the age of law. Either seeing the be all and end all of Christian life in keeping laws. Or in seeing the moral law as a set of terrible rules that are impossible for any of us to keep.  The age of law.

And law was something that St Paul had a lot to say about. Because he wants to show the need for grace.

St Paul saw the Law of Moses as good in itself. But having, shall we say, some nasty side effects.

The first nasty side effect any parent knows. What’s the easiest way to get a child to do something? Tell him not to! Law makes us rebel. And it brings knowledge of sin. And so increases sin.

Whether Almighty God gave the Law in order to increase sin is much more disputable. But, at least for St Paul, increase sin it certainly does.

Whether Law makes us think we can save ourselves is also disputable, especially as we can’t succeed in keeping it. But Law-keeping is not the first principle of our salvation.

The first principle of our salvation is grace and faith.

We’ve been looking back through history to see why we need saving. Why we need Lent and Easter. To prepare ourselves for Lent by looking more deeply at our need for salvation. More deeply into our own moral lives. At nature and law and how we have kept them. And also, if we’re wise, at virtue and how we are practising it.

But the prospect ahead, not only in the next few weeks, but in the rest of our lives, will be a wintry one if we don’t see our need for grace. If we don’t see just what’s available to us.

So our look ahead to what begins this evening, to Septuagesima and Lent, makes us turn around and look back. Back to Christmas. Because Christmas is the beginning of the age of grace. The cure for our sins. And the beginning of our glory.